Symbol & Sacrament
In researching a talk about Orthodox Christianity and the Benedict Option, I came across this passage from Orthodox Spirituality by Dimitru Staniloae, pp 205-06.:
So it is a main idea of St. Maximus [the Confessor] that things hide divine logoi in them, as so many rays of the supreme Logos. He who discovers them in things ascends on their thread to the knowledge of God and this knowledge must anticipate His direct knowledge.
This teaching attributed to creation and the thought referring to it a necessary role in the ascent of man to God. St. Maximus is a stranger to the idea of a vision which we might attain by bypassing the forms and laws of the cosmos. On the road of our approach to God stands the world – we must pass through the understanding of it. Every man has a mission connected with the world. Everyone must know it according to the power given to him, inasmuch as knowledge can’t come until the gaining of the virtues; everyone must develop beforehand a moral activity in relationship to the world. A mainly negative attitude toward the world frustrates salvation itself. The world is imposed on everyone as a stone for sharpening his spiritual faculties.
By the world man grows to the height of the knowledge of God and to the capacity of being His partner. The world is a teacher to lead us to Christ. Of course it can also be the road to hell. It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of testing. If we look at its beauty in order to praise its creator, we are saved; if we think that its fruit is pure and simply something to eat, we are lost. Salvation isn’t obtained in isolation, but in a cosmic frame. This value of the world as a road to God is explained by the fact that man must have an object of giant proportions for strengthening his spiritual forces, but also from the intrinsic structure of the world as a symbol of transcendent divine realities. A symbol (from the Greek symballein, to throw together, to unite two things without confusing them), is a visible reality which doesn’t only represent, but somehow makes an unseen reality visible. A symbol presupposes and sows two things simultaneously. It is a “bridge between two worlds” as somebody has said. A word, for example, is a symbol of the spirit, uniting and simultaneously presenting the materiality of the sound with the meaning of thought without confusing them; the human face, likewise, makes the spirit in man transparent by its materiality, and if he is living in Him, God Himself. A symbolic consciousness of the world “sees everywhere in this world the signs and symbols of another world, and perceives the divine as the mysterious and infinite, beyond that which is finite and transitory.” [Nikolai Berdyaev]
All flesh is a symbol of the spirit, the reflection, the image, and the sign of another far off, yet much more profound, reality.
The alliance of these two worlds, the possibility of their interpenetration, the transfusion of energy from one world into the other, are all communicated to us by means of this symbolic sign. This symbol unveils for us the life of God and signifies for us the entrance of divine energy into the life of this natural world. But on the other hand it guards for all time the sense of infinite mystery and affirms the impossibility of reducing to a common denominator the life of the world and the life of the spirit. Symbolism does not admit the validity of that ossification and isolation of the flesh and the natural world which results from transforming them into entities incapable of permeation by the infinitude of God and the Spirit.
As we turn aside from the life of this world our whole attention is fixed upon the unfathomable and the ineffable; everywhere we are in contact with the mysterious and we see the light of another world, in which nothing ever comes to an end, and which knows no subordination. The world is open to the light, it has no limits, it penetrates into other worlds, and they in turn penetrate into it. Here there is nothing hard or rigid which cannot be subdued.